Packaging has always been integral to music releases. Over a century ago, a German company released Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in specially-designed packaging and dubbed it an “album.” An “album” is not music alone, it is an interdisciplinary product. Throughout the 20th century, cover art and packaging became key to any music release. Large record labels appointed artistic directors, bands included posters and stickers along with the release, and artists used the cover art to challenge and mock the status quo in ways their music didn’t. Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It for The Money featured art that was supposed to be an “inverted” replica of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover art. Deemed disrespectful, Zappa’s image ultimately came with the record but was not its cover art.
Cover art is the most visible part of an album and as such has often been censored. An often cited example of censorship is Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Other hip hop cover art that has been censored includes Death Grips’ No Love Deep Web, Ice T’s Home Invasion, Master P’s Ghetto D, and Nicki Minaj’s iconic Anaconda single art. 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Want to Be was released in 1989 and in 1990 the US district court for southern Florida deemed the cover “legally obscene,” making it illegal in some Florida counties. Legal obscenity is used most often in cases of pornagraphy and prevents the subject from being protected under the first amendment. 2 Live Crew was actually arrested following a local performance of the album, prompting notorious atheist and public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens, to chime in on the judge and sheriff involved in the case: “In fact, I think they are a pair of racist shitheads who should be told to fuck right off.”
As the album container shrank, so too did the cover art. Vinyl cardboard casing provides a full square foot for photographs and designs to be displayed, not to mention room for posters, liners, and other merchandise. With the advent of cassettes and cds, that space shrank considerably. No transition was more stark than the transition to digital releases. The internet presents an odd paradox for cover art: it is simultaneously limitless, providing arguably infinite space, and virtual, thereby removing the tangible experience that was once integral to an experience of “the album.” To get a better understanding of cover art in the digital age, I spoke with illustrator Nick Francis. Francis has made cover art for numerous projects, including rapper Angel Haze’s Resurrection, rapper Siri’s GAWDBAWDY, and Fantastic Negrito’s grammy-nominated album The Last Days of Oakland. Some highlights from our conversation are below.
Gurlgilt: Digital album art is still relatively in its infancy, and I am curious if you see sort of a potential for digital album art in the future that can do things that weren’t possible in a static medium? And what those possibilities might be?
|Artwork for Angel Haze's Single "Resurrection"|
Nick: Well, I think there are two answers to this question. Yes, there definitely is [potential] because for instance, animated covers. You can’t do that with actual album covers. I just did a single cover for Angel Haze, rapper out of Detroit/LA, who’s coming out with their sophomore album. And we did an animated single cover. So you can go on their Instagram or Youtube or Twitter or whatever to see this whole animation for this single. Now there are limitations that we can do with that. We can’t put it on iTunes or Tidal, because they just work with a standard image. You can’t print that. But we definitely saw the magazines that picked us up, Fader, XL, they never ran with the still image, they always ran with the animated cover. Because it’s online, you can throw a GIF in anywhere.
I think the other answer to [your question], which is equally important is that vinyl sales are up. Specifically vinyl, not CDs, sales have gone up every year for the past 12 years. Records are still selling and they are selling at a higher rate than they were last year and the year before that. I think a lot of that is because people have realized that they scammed us. Albums and record labels are scamming us with things like iTunes where you’re paying 13, 14 dollars for them on iTunes. Because if you go to the store there is a reason you’re paying 13 dollars for a physical CD. It’s not because the artist is getting 10 dollars and the store is getting 3 or whatever. It’s because it costs money to ship, to package, to manufacture, insurance costs for the shipping, packaging, and manufacturing. There is a reason it costs 13 dollars at the store. There’s not a reason it costs 13 dollars on iTunes. That is a scam to get you to pay money. If they were doing it properly, you’d be paying 4 or 5 dollars for the same album on iTunes. So then people also realize “I’m not getting the lyrics, the art, the whatever” so more people buy it physically. So I’m not really worried about that. I’ve had more clients calling me asking me to do full vinyl package for a small album release.
G: From the point where the artist or someone on the team asks you to make the cover art to the point where it is released, what is your process there?
|Cover art for Siri's GAWDBAWDY|
N: It depends. I generally like to listen to the music if I can. That doesn’t always happen. So I’ll often times go back and listen to their other material, just to get a sense of who they are and what they are about. And then something I am guilty of doing seeing if I can pair the ideas I am already working on to what the client wants. So, for instance, a little bit of a sneak peak. I am currently working with Angel Haze and we are currently in development of their album artwork. And they just so happen to be talking about salvation in this new record, a concept I had been thinking about a lot over the past year and half. So I’d been working already on a bunch of visual ways of expressing and showing salvation. So because those two things happen to be occurring at the same time there is going to be some cross feed in the work I was doing and the work I will be doing for Angel Haze.
G: The last question I want to ask you isn’t a specific question. The Fantastic Negrito album is an exciting thing, it’s very much in the limelight right now. So maybe if you could just talk about that a little bit.
|Cover art for Fantastic Negrito's The Last Days of Oakland|
N: The Fantastic Negrito cover for The Last Days of Oakland that was a really interesting moment. There is a lot of stories around it, but there is a key story whose title I am blanking on. But it goes something like this: there is a musician travelling through the south and he finds himself at a crossroads. And -- this is such a famous story -- he’s at the crossroads and he meets the devil. The devil offers him the ability to play guitar better than anyone else in the entire world in exchange for his soul. And he makes that deal. And he becomes the best guitar player but he wanders the country aimlessly, never fulfilled. That was something that was in my head a lot in the process of creating the album art. That is why there is the crossroad street signs on the cover, between 32nd and San Pablo. I really connected with Fantastic Negrito’s story where he was a young kid, running away from home. Living on the streets of Oakland at 17, 18. [And after a really severe car crash and a record deal that falls through, he sort of stops playing music]. And then I think the story he told me was that his son one day picked up a guitar from under his bed and started playing it and asked his dad if he would show him how to play guitar. And he starts showing his kid and that reawakens his love and desire for music. A few years after busking at the BART station he becomes Fantastic Negrito and I believe it’s within the space of 2 years he is now grammy nominated for this album. Which was made with rubber bands and glue and paper tape from a little makeshift label Blackball Universe out here in West Oakland.
So I was hearing all that and listening to his stories and I was connecting with him. I haven’t had those same experiences to such a severe degree but I have had my own moments through my own disabilities and health issues that I’ve gone through. So that story of being reawakened and fighting for this idea, this city, the people around you, really connected with me. So that was our jumping off point. We played around with a lot of ideas. Something that was really important was this idea of the new Oakland and the old Oakland. That it doesn’t have to be one versus the other. And as a young kid growing up in Oakland I’ve been very pessimistic about that. I’ve seen the changes around Lake Merritt and how it expanded out after the “beautification” occurred. So I have always been very pessimistic about new people coming in and very like “what are the people living here supposed to do?” And Fantastic Negrito is an old school cat. There was one day we were talking and he kind of sat me down and was like “Look, it’s more complicated than that. There are old people that have been here forever, there are new people coming in, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. If both parties find common ground, there is a new city that can be born from it. That can actually help everyone involved. This new money doesn’t only have to go to certain people, it can go to everybody. Everybody can work together to make everyone happy.” And that’s something he really made sure to make both part of the album itself and the artwork. Which is why, and I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see the vinyl, it shows in a very abstracted version the entire bay area. Everything done in this newly abstracted style.
Nick Francis was born and raised in Oakland, California. At the end of the conversation I asked him if there was anything he would like to add. In the wake of the Ghost Ship, he stated “I definitely think something that would be helpful for other artists like myself would be a safe and affordable space where we can work. Cause that’s a big part of the problem, people being able to make a living as artists out here. Whatever new Oakland that Fantastic Negrito has envisioned, it needs to have that. Hopefully we can work together to have that.”